George R.R. Martin on writing religion in fantasy

Apparently Martin said that,



I thought it was a curious statement and was wondering if other people agreed or disagree?


I happen to be very religious but I still don't agree with the statement. History does not necessarily have to dictate fantasy...and I've always felt that part of what makes fantasy so interesting is that it doesn't have to conform at all to our world so you can take it anywhere you want. Now religion can be a useful tool in world building...building up religions, using it to help build kingdoms, cities, people...but I don't feel it absolutely has to be done. You could absolutely write a non-religious world, I would think. Or the question doesn't have to feature at all, the existence of religion or the none-existence of it.


Er, for the record I'm not trying to get into a religious debate here ;-). I'm only curios whether other people think it's true that religion of some kind *must* feature in fantasy.


Well the reader is going to bring his or her experience along when reading the story--the reader's experience will be the filter the story goes through. And if you write a book with a non-religious society, which I agree you can do, religion is still going to be there as a contrast. What is a non-religious society compared to? A religious one, simply because those have been around for a loooooooooong time in our own history. Even the secular parts of our world have religious ideas and imagery in it.


Very true. But I'm not sure, if it's not relevant to the story, that religion would have to necessarily be mentioned in way or the other? If tons and tons of non-fantasy stories can be told in which religion plays no part...I'm not sure I entirely see why a fantasy story would have to include it.


Keep in mind the type of fantasy that Martin writes. He likes a big detailed world with lots of distinct societies and cultures and huge, sweeping plots. How relevant your world's history is to your story may vary. Assuming that your fantasy setting departs from the generic middle ages with magic mold, a detailed history may be really important. Having a world where religion plays no important role in history would be so unusual that it would actually need more of an explanation than otherwise, especially a fantasy world. After all, a common element for many fantasy worlds is that the gods intervene directly in mortal affairs. At least, that's how it seems to me.


Depending on the fantasy story, it may not necessarily have to be in there. Martin goes for realism, though. And in real life, religion has played a humongous role in the shaping of history. Think back to Egypt. Pyramids, statues, drawings...that stuff was inspired by their religion. They believed that the ka of a person, something like a soul, could continue to dwell again on earth through a representation of the person. So they'd have special ways to write their names, commission artwork depicting themselves, and even make sure little homonculi-type figurines were left to cater to them when they came back. Ans as much as people think of Nefertiti as beautiful, depictions of her in that way only exist because of Akhenaton's (naming himself for his new deity) sweeping changes to the social and religious order of the day, which led to opposition from the priesthood, which led to Akhenaton's dynasty not lasting all that long.


Religion (either a person's own, or in history, or others' views) plays a huge role in people's lives, whether they realize it or not.


As for a non-religious world, it's hard to imagine such a place. People come up with all sorts of religions as a matter of course. Even if you leave out gods entirely, you could still wind up with something like Buddhism, the Church of Satan, or Roko's Basilisk.


The challenge is to handle the situation right. You don't necessarily want to turn the story into just a tract for your favored religious opinions. Most religions have so many varying opinions on doctrine and dogma within their various sects, let alone the problems with making every follower of an analogous religion a strawman fundamentalist.


I would be leery of making an absolute statement like that, and judging it depends on the context of what he was discussing. If Martin prefaced it with his specific sub-genre, which is alternate Medieval Dark Ages historical fantasy, the culture requires religious overtones because of the era.


But the Wizard of Oz and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland are fantasy and avoid history and overt religion. Dragonlance and Dungeons and Dragons require it. Harry Potter avoided most direct mentions. It depends on the story. Narnia is Christian allegory.


GS, have you READ Oz? Ozma is the high priestess of oz as well as queen, there is VERY much a state religion that is shared in large part by everyone there. Alice as well, there are mentions made by the twins and the queens that could easily be taken as referring to some kind of religion they share.


Potter's world has magic, a deep belief in spirits and how the world works rooted in stories of the past. Just because they can SEE that their magic works and that the spirits are real doesnt make it any less religion. I think the issue might be that when you hear "religion" you think of modern mass religions. take a look at shinto, british isles shamanism, ect. Look at grimms faery tales, which is ABSOLUTELY part of the folk religion of the region. other races that dont have religions, cool. but humans? Even a lot of atheists believe in spirits, or forces beyond our control. Hell, a friend of mine is a very prominent athiest in the game design community, who denies the existence of ANY kind of supernatural entities existing, has some form of strange animism going on where he has built spirits and personalities for some monster plushes that he interacts with. A society of humans with NO form of supernatural or religious beliefs at all? Not gonna buy it.


I was more going by the movies,it has been a loooooooong time since I read the books.


I'm leery of words like "can't" when it comes to worldbuilding; the world is whatever the author needs it to be to tell the story.


However, in my experience, the strongest and best fantasy stories are those which incorporate religion. Designing believable religious systems is one of the things at which Brandon Sanderson is particularly brilliant, and his books are just about the best thing currently written for my money.


High fantasy as it was originally handed down from Tolkien and Lewis either used allegorical references to extant real-world religion or skirted around the issue entirely. The way religion is actually taken into account and addressed in more modern fantasy is, in my view, a great improvement to the genre.


For what it's worth, the Oz stories include references to (and are influenced by)Theosophy--Baum's religion.